Date: Tue, 8 Aug 95 04:41:00 UTC
It seemed to take forever, but finally on June 7th all the preparations we could complete in San Diego were done and we were ready to go. All the furniture was sold, most of our other belongings were donated or given away, and whatever we had left was packed in the van. Caryl's last day of work was Friday June 2nd. It's rather funny, after spending so much time preparing and dreaming, reaching the final goal was almost anticlimatic. We had both expected to be in a state of euphoria, but we were more pragmatic. We still had a long way to drive and more chores to take care of in Denver and Wyoming. So we just set our sights on the road ahead and pressed on.
Rather than immediately hop on the bikes we decided to spend the summer traveling around the states of Colorado, Wyoming, and S. Dakota in the van, that's after we dropped everything we wanted to store in Denver. Since this would likely be our last opportunity to use a motorized vehicle for a long, long time, we decided to take advantage of it. We spent the months of June and July camping, hiking, back packing, and generally bumming around.
The next chapter of our newslettter covers the time we spent traveling in the van. Even though it's not a bike related newsletter we thought it might make a nice prelude to the biking phase.
- Who are Casper and Nermil anyway?
Folks are probably wondering just who this Casper and Nermil are. Casper is our van. His true name is "Casper the Friendly Van", of course. You may think he's named after the highly successful movie, but actually we named him before the movie was released. He's named after the actual cartoon character. Why Casper? Well, he's big, white, totally awsome, and possessed. "Possessed?" you ask. We noted two odd things about this van. First he likes to turn his interior lights on at random, usually in response to a question or when he's doing something that requires exertion, like going up hill.
Second, last November while camping out in Death valley the rear door had jammed shut. Neither of us could pull it open. Later that same day we were driving up a steep hill to a nice sunset overlook spot. Brian was grumbling about how this door problem meant one more thing we'd have to take care of before heading to Denver. Just as he mentioned that the door swung wide open. Now our bikes were sitting just in front of the door and the last thing we needed was to have them roll out. Brian slammed on the brakes, pulled over to the side, and came to a quick stop. The door slammed shut not to be opened by either of us again, at least not until we had time to fix the lock. So draw your own conclusions, is Casper possessed or not?
Nermil, on the other hand, is our mascot and will be going with us on our bike tour. If you recall, Nermil is Garfield's nephew, and also the world's cutest kitten, that's according to Nermil of course. But it is a cute, gray, stuffed kitten with big crossed eyes and a really dumb look on his face. Before we head out on bike I'll be making a helmet for him. After all, bike safety is important.
- San Diego to Denver, June 7 to June 15, 2000+ miles
After loading the van and a quick visit with the folks at SDRC, we headed out. Our original plan had been to hurry to Denver so we could get the van unloaded. The van was absolutely stuffed. To get at anything involved climbing over a stack of boxes and squeezing between the 1 foot gap between the roof and top box. To top it off, whatever it was we were looking for seemed to never be in the top box. So we were not all that comfortable and we wanted to get some *space* ASAP.
The first day we drove up over the hill past Santa Ysabel, Warner Springs, Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park, and camped about 35 miles south of Bishop. The drive was long and uneventful. We did learn something new, however. We actually left San Diego at about 2PM. By the time we got up to Santa Ysabel, AKA Dudley's Bakery corner, it was about 4PM. We stopped to buy a dozen cookies, but since it was late in the day the woman at the counter actually gave us 20 cookies for the price of 12. Good deal!! So to get the most for your money the time to visit Dudley's is late on a weekday afternooon.
We also had to backtrack at Bishop. We drove past the town of Lusk where we wanted to turn right for the campground. But, foolishly we hadn't filled up the gas tank before leaving Twentynine Palms. Casper's a good van, but he can't run on air. So we drove up to Bishop, had dinner in a fast food place (yes folks we really did eat fast food hamburgers) and then headed the 35 miles back to Lusk. At about midnight, after driving for about 15 miles one one rough dirt road, we found a nice secluded campground. Hopefully the packing job we did on our few glass mementos was sufficient. We were the only ones there until about 2AM when a second group showed up. Now anyone who's ever camped in the desert knows that the slightest whisper sounds like a shout in the still of the night. So we were awake for about an hour as we waited for these folks to finish their business.
The next day we continued east toward Lake Mead. We came to an intersection where we had our first opportunity to flex our newly retired brain cells. We had an option. Turn left to take a more direct and faster trip to Denver or turn right and go visit Laughlin, NV. We turned right.
As we approached Laughlin it was so hard to believe there could be a city that size or a river that size tucked between the dry, rugged mountains. Except for the billboards announcing *great payoffs* at the slots or *the best buffet* in town, it would have seemed that we were driving along some totally delosate desert road. The brown mountains were pretty in a way that only the desert can be and the sky was bright blue with puffy cumulus clouds providing spots of cooling shade. I think it's these contrasts of colors, reds, orange, brown, yellows, against the deep blue sky that give the desert its beauty. The road --- well this was the biggest and most heavily traveled road we'd been on since leaving San Digeo, a big four lane road going from nowhere right into the center of Laughlin's gambling district.
Laughlin is a minuture version of Las Vegas with the added attraction of the Colorado River and the brown mountains thrown in. It has its gambling strip lined with gawdy theme style hotels such as a Mississippi river boat and the Victoria station in London. The "strip" is actually separated from the "real" city of Laughlin by about 4 to 5 miles. We couldn't help but wonder if the city purposefully separated the fantasy world of riverboat hotels from the everyday world to make sure that at least someone was doing other work besides supporting the gambling industry.
We wandered around for several hours, poking our heads into a few of the casinos and taking advantage of a cheap buffet lunch. We lost a whole $.50 to one of those computerized poker machines. Obviously we're not exactly the high rolling gambler types. Brian enjoys an occasional turn at those computerized poker machines and Caryl finds the whole affair rather boring.
The casinos of Laughlin looked like casinos the world over. Coming from the bright outdoor daylight you are suddennly surrounded by noise and darkness punctuated by bright neon flashing lights. The sound is incredible. Ringing bells, blowing horns, peoples voices, and the continual clink and clatter of coins into the little metal cans at the bottom of each machine. As your eyes adjust to the dim lights the color and lights from the slot, poker, roulette, and other machines come into focus as well as the haze from the many cigarettes burning in the room. The nonsmoking craze hasn't hit the casino world and probably never will. In all our travels the only place we've encountered where the continual onslaught of color, lights, and noise is worse are the Pachinco parlors in Japan. Pachinco parlors have all that plus the sounds of hundreds of thousands of little steel balls falling through pins into metal trays.
We tend to people watch when we go to casinos. Casino goers seem to fall into four catagories. The addicted gamblers occupy 5 slot machines at once and frantically try to shove as many quarters into each machine as fast as possible. Often they are elderly, have a neglected cigarette butt hanging from their mouth, some sort of mixed drink in hand, and a rather glazed expression in their eyes. Perhaps the spinning wheels causes a hypnotic trance making these people not realize that they are shoving money into the machines at a much higher rate than it's coming back out. Okay, maybe I generalize a bit. But anyone whose been to Las Vegas knows the type.
Then there are the first time gamblers. They run around helter skelter from machine to machine, usually jingling a bunch of coins in one of those handy dandy plastic buckets graciously provided by the casino to hold all your *winnings*. Often these folks are dressed in tourist garb, you know the multi colored shirt, pastel colored shorts, sunglasses hanging from some part of their body, and a behemouth camara hanging from their neck. Actually these days it's more often a monster video recorder carefully balanced on a shoulder. It's real fun to watch these folks pull up to a casino for the very first time. They have a look of excitment and rush forward giving the impression that they believe the winnings will run out before they get their chance. It'd all be so funny if it weren't for the fact that we all look and act the same way the first time. I know I did.
The occasional gambler is much less obvious. These are the folks who use gambling for enterntainment, like going to a movie. They dress in normal street clothes and act in a reasonably normal way. They seem to have a realistic outlook on gambling, i.e. there's no way you're ever going to win. If it weren't for the fact that most everyone else looks and acts so strange these folks would probably never be noticed.
Finally there are those of us who aren't gamblers and don't really like it. You find us sitting quietly in some corner watching people go by with a rather bewildered look on our faces. It's not that we're lost, it's just that we can't begin to fathom what it is about these gaudily decorated rooms, fancy machines, clinking coins, and losing money could get so many folks so excited.
We'd had our fill of Laughlin and headed out once again in a generally northeasterly direction. We passed Lake Mead on its west shore and right at its northern end had to make the first compromise in our route. Our original objective was to get to Denver via only the small back roads, not one mile of interstate. But just north of Lake Mead at the tiny town of Glendale there is one small 2 mile gap between two exits and there was no way around, dirt road or otherwise. So we were forced to drive the 2 miles on I-15. We were sorely disappointed but had no other choice.
Continuing north toward Great Basin National Park we took a quick stop at the Cathedral Gorge State Park. We've never seen anything quite like this before. This is an area where a cliff composed of red mud and clay was formed. Over time the cliff was eroded by rain into these real skinny gorges that are about 3 ft. wide, 30 ft. tall, and extend probably up to 50 yards or so into the cliff face. In some locations the cliff comes together at the top forming one tall skinny tunnel. The texture of the walls was the most interesting. Rapping the wall with your nuckles gave a sound almost like a very, very dense foam. Clearly the structure was just mud, no stone or rocks. The locations where the water entered the gorge were 30 ft verticle shafts of smoothly worn mud. That was it, the end of that gorge.
We also really liked the fee policy for this park. You could drive through, get out of your car, and wander around for free. If you chose to use the facilities; bathroom, picnic tables, campground, you were asked to pay the $3 entrance fee. It's good to be able to look for free.
We stopped our drive for a day to explore Great Basin National Park, one of only two National Park type facilities in Nevada the other being Lake Mead. Now, we've been to Nevada several times but only in the southern tip near Las Vegas or on the western stateline near Taho and Reno. For the most part our impression was that Nevada was essentially all flat desert. No forests, no trees, no mountains. Were we surprised with Great Basin. Beautiful 13,000+ ft mountains loaded with Ponderosa pines that, for this particular year, still had over 6 ft of snow at the peak. In fact the ranger we met mentioned that it had just snowed the day before and 50 mph winds had blown so many trees over in one campground that it was closed until it could be cleared. We revised our impressions of Nevada after this visit.
We spent the first half of the day taking the tour of Lehman Cave. We got to see all sorts of cave calcite crystal formations; stalagmites, stalactites, columns, frost, popcorn, drapery, bacon, and many others with similar odd names. One thing we were surprised to learn was that caves continue to grow. Actually what happens is that someone takes a turn that no one has ever taken before and proceeds to find many more miles of underground caverns. Actually by measuring the velocity of air flow between the cave's interior and exterior the geologists are able to come up with an estimate of its total volume. >From this estimate the amount of cave left to be explored can be determined. Lehman cave is estimated to be about 40% expored while the much larger Jewel Cave in S. Dakota is only about 1% explored.
Our cave tour guide, Allen, was great. Turns out he was a third year geology student doing a tour as a summer seasonal ranger. He was also very much into spelunking, crawling around in caves. So not only did he know a lot about the actual sport but also about the rock formations themselves. Did you know that the caves are made by carbonic acid eating away the original calcite deposites? That's the same acid that forms the fizz in a soda pop.
We also learned why the Great Basin is called the Great Basin. The tectonic plate movements have created several north/south mountain ranges from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierras. A large flat plane was created in between these ranges in the Utah and Nevada areas. Because of the mountains, the water does not flow to ocean. It is trapped and just evaporates. In the case of the Great Salt Lake the continual evaporation has left so many minearls giving the water its salty tast. Evidently geologists call an area where the water is trapped like this a basin and since this one covers such a large area it is called the Great Basin.
After leaving Nevada we went straight through Utah with only a short stop for lunch. We were driving along some nice senic roads, but there just wasn't anything along our particular route giving us an overwhelming urge to stop. We simply continued on to Dinosaur National Park on the Colorado/Utah stateline.
The crown jewel of Dinosaur is, of course, the fossilized dinosaur bones discovered in the area. Although it is also well renouned for the canyons cut by the Green and Yampa Rivers. Evidently it's a great place for white water rafting. The fossils were discovered back around 1908 . Evidently Carnegie, yup from the Cernegie Institute, read about some huge dinosaur found in the area. He sent a scientist to go buy it for his museum. It turned out that the particular specimen from the paper was only a small portion. But based on leads from locals the scientist was able to discover a nearly complete fossil at the site now in the park. For several decades excavation work was performed at the site and the resulting fossils sent to museums all over the world, including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. At the end of the excavation, 1957, they simply left several fossilized bones in relief in the stone wall for display to visitors. The display is quite well done. There are two levels to view the dinosaur rock wall and several descriptions of the various creatures found at the site. All is enclosed in a large glass building. Scaffolding and winches used during the final years of excavation are still in place. Although, various signs indicated that the building was constructed on expansive soil and would need to be either replaced or stabilized. Evidently the plans for the building are the subject of much controversy.
Before leaving the park we took a drive along the Canyon Rim road to view other parts of the park. One thing we always find no matter what park we visit and when we visit, as soon as you get away from the main tourist draw you find the crowds thin dramatically. Even in Yellostone on a holiday weekend it's possible to get away from the crowds just by going for a long hike. The same happened at Dinosaur. The display wall was packed with tourists. But we only saw a few cars along the rim drive. On the one hand it's rather sad that most folks don't take the time to see other areas of the parks. They're really missing some of the best features. Yet on the other hand it's nice for those of us who are more adventurous. We can still find places of relative solitude.
We continued on to Grand Junction where we spent the night in a campground up in the Colorado National Monument having a fabulous view of the town below. While setting up camp we were treated to a demonstration of the latest toy rage by a 5 year old boy. This toy was some strange spidery, green, monstery looking figure with webbed fingers and toes, a dragon like face, and bendable joints. Downright one of the ugliest toys we'd ever seen. Yet the boy's grandma claims that they're so hot the store clerks are grabbing them before they even hit the shelves. Whatever happened to such normal toys like Mickey Mouse or even GI Joe.
Both times we've visited Colorado National Monument we've come away with the general impression, "gee that was nice, but why a National Monument?" Running east/west in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains is a fault line that lifted one section of the plains up about 1000 ft or so. Then, over time the wind and rains have eroded the cliffs forming canyons that extend deep into the cliff wall. Being sedimentary rock from that most infamous ocean that once covered most of the U.S. west at one time, the canyon walls are stripes of white, orange, red, and yellow. There are also a lot of standing piller rock formation caused by regions of tougher rock being separated from the canyon wall by erosion. What I found so remarkable was the fact that you drive along this cliff and look right down at the town of Grand Junction.
This area became a monument due to the efforts of one John Otos (I think I got that right). This guy was so enamored with this area that he even went so far as to build about 12 miles of road up the cliff to encourage others to come explore. He was even married within the shadow of the Independence Monument one of the free standing columns, although his wife later left because Otos even found a simple cabin to be an encomburance. Perhaps he was a little daft, perhaps just a visionary. In any event, the monument would not exist if it weren't for him.
Our final long stop before heading into Denver was at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It is absolutely amazing. The Gunnison river cuts a narrow canyon about 2000 ft deep through very tough volcanic rock resulting in very shear black cliffs. Evidently the reason why the river cuts through this hard rock rather than the soft surrounding rock is because two volcanoes trapped the river between them some odd millions of years ago. That combined with a very steep drop, about 950 ft in the canyon alone, resulted in this amazing wonder.
We spent half a day going from lookout to lookout staring down the dizzying depths at the fast flowing Gunnison below. Even the black ominous clouds, lightning, and spittles of rain couldn't keep us in the van. And, oh how we envied those birds. They so easily sore from canyon rim to the water's edge so far below, a trip requiring us mere humans many hours to complete even on the best maintained trails.
On the final leg into Denver we made a wrong turn at the town of Buena Vista that resulted in our having to drive another 6 miles on the interstate. *Double bummer.* But it was getting late and we needed to get to Brian's mom's house sometime that night. We finally pulled in at about 11 Pm on June 15, tired, dirty, and irritable. Time for some rest and unloading.
Denver, Casper Wy (our new home) - June 15 to 25,
You know how it is when you come into town to see a whole gaggle of relatives you haven't seen for a while. Everything seems to be in the middle of a whirlwind as everyone hurridly tries to catch up on absolutely everything that's happened to everyone. Add to that a list of errands to be done at locations throughout the city and you'll realize that we really didn't get much rest. Chores to be done included, get the van unloaded, sort through everything, prepare all boxes for long term storage, buy a hat for Brian, new flute for Caryl, new carpet for Casper, get the tent zipper fixed, get traveler's checks, deliver the boxes to Craig's house, upload/download email, wash the tent and it's zippers, and in between all this visit with relatives and almost get in a good bike ride. By almost I mean we had to get picked up because there wasn't enough time to ride back to the house. Whew!!!! Somehow we managed to get it all done and were reaady to head toward Wyoming by Tuesday Morning.
We did learn something about zippers that could save us money and hassles in the future. To help prevent zipper blow-outs you should periodically clean them with a tooth brush. Evidently all the dirt that collects in the zipper teeth can wear out the zipper pulls so that eventually they no longer close the zipper. You can also wash the entire tent as an additional cleaning step. Use a front loading washer, cold wash and rinse, and a real mild detergent such as biodegradable camp soap. If you still need to add lubricant to make it pull easier, use a nonpetroleum based lubricant. We tried the cleaning steps and it made a huge difference in the overall feel ov our zippers. They felt almost like new. We're still having problems with some of the old worn zipper pulls. But the ones that were used infrequently are working quite well.
We headed toward Laramie where we were thinking of establishing our new address. The route took us through Ft. Collins where we took a break from driving to tour the Celestial Seasonings tea factory. Being a confirmed tea, not coffee, drinker, this stop seemed quite worthwhile to me. We started the tour at the gift shop where they had a tea bar from which you could select a sample of any of their teas. Then on to the factory.
Celestial Seasonings was created by some "long haired hippy" types back in the 70's. A couple of business students at Colorado State would go trapesing through the mountains looking for various herbs to put in herbal teas. These teas became quite popular so they soon started selling them to the local health food stores. Their girlfriends made the cotton tea bags and they continued to get herbs from the local hills. Gradually the business grew bigger and bigger. Now it imports it's tea ingrediants from all over the world and exports the final product all over the world. It's interesting to note that prior to the 70's there really were no herbal type teas available in regular supermarkets. They were found only in the health food stores.
We got to see the packaging section first. As engineers we always find the actions of the various robotic arms and all the conveyor belts and rollers taking the boxes every which way and still miraculously managing to get a closed and sealed cartons to be amazing. It'd actually be quite fun to work on the design of such a machine sometime.
Boxes and boxes of imported ingrediants were everywhere, except for the black tea and peppermints. These were all placed in isolation rooms until use. The black tea needs isolation because it absorbes flavors from other sources. Peppermints are the opposite. We got to visit each room. Imagine sticking your nose in a box of black tea and taking a big wiff. Not too bad. But the peppermint room. Egad, our eyes watered and everything around us smelled like peppermint for about 1/2 hour after leaving. It's hard to imagine how overpowering the smell was unless you actually go and experience it. I guarantee you won't stay in that room for much more than a few seconds.
We were rather surprised by one thing. All visitors on the tour are required to wear a hat or hair net. OK, I can understand their concern for cleanliness. But in the tea mixing area we saw employees dressed in regular street clothes, no gloves, dumping in the ingredients. And these folks weren't being particularly careful about keeping their clothes, arms, annd whatever else out. It would seem that if they were so concerned about cleanliness that they would require all employees to wear special cleaned overalls, gloves, face mask, and hair net. Clean rooms used in the aerospace industry far exceed the clean standards we saw here and we don't eat or drink satellites
The rest of the afternoon was pretty much a straight drive along the Rocky Mountain foothills to Laramie. Upon cruising around town and looking in the phonebook we realized that Laramie was perhaps a bit too small for what we needed. They only had one commercial mail box store whose prices were rather high due to no competition. Se we decided to head on to Casper instead.
In Casper we found a mail boxes place run by a wonderful woman who knew exactly how to handle nonresident residents. Evidently she already handles mail for several "snowbirds". So we quickly arranged for mail forwarding for the next two years. Then we were off to get our driver's licenses, change our voter's registration, apply for health insurance, and even consult with a lawyer about the legality of our living trust. We managed to finish all this in just one day, a feat that would have been impossible in San Diego. We even had time to drive the extra 40 or so miles to the town of Douglas to spend the night.
The friendly welcome we received from folks in Casper was quite a pleasnat change from San Diego. Imagine walking into the Department of Motor Vehicles and actually having a real pleasant conversation from one of the clerks. Virtually everyone we met was giving us tips on places to hike and camp and kept saying, "You're gonna like it here." So far we're tending to agree with them. Although we may not get the chance to find out for some time, until we get the traveling bug out of us. For now, though, the state of Wyoming has a population of 453,600 plus 2 and Casper has a population of 46,700 plus 2.
We've even discovered that Wyoming has some of the most outstanding and unusual roadside rest stops we've ever seen. Several have tourists offices ready to give you publications and other aid upon request. Many of the untended ones were built using solar heating and cooling techniques. Upon careful inspection we believe the solar buildings probably cost no more to build than the older, nonsolar ones. Finally, the rest stop just east of Laramie has a unique statue of Lincoln overlooking the highway, evidently Lincoln was a big proponent for the construction of the road, as well as a display showing the road and rest stops through the years. We don't think we've see another rest stop like it before.
Douglas was great. They have an absolutely wonderful town park by the river where you can camp for free (keep this in mind all you coast-to-coast bike tourists). It even has a nice hot shower, also free. The only catch is, the sprinklers come on early in the morning, 8AM acccording to the sign but actually at 7AM this morning. So if you're going to get tent packed up before they come on you'd better get up early.
Douglas, by the way, is the town where the legend of the jackalope took root. You know, the cross between a jack rabbit and antelope resulting in a rabbit looking animal with antelope horns. It started as a joke told between hunters and has actually expanded into quite a business. You can buy stuffed jackalopes, T- shirts, hats, key chains, etc with jackalopes painted on them, and even jackalope hunting licenses. We passed on these.
Black Hills, Badlands, and Devil's Tower - June 25 - July 5
We spent the better part of about 5 days exploring the Black Hills of S. Dakota, staying in one campground and fanning out from there. Highlights included Mount Rushmore and the Needles Highway drive, Jewel Cave, a hike to Harny Peak, a ride on the 1880 train, and a tour of Wind Cave.
At Jewel cave we decided to take the "candlelight" tour rather than the "senic" tour. It actually proved to be quite fun. Each person is given a candle bucket. Basically a paint can with the handle turned so it attaches at the top and bottom. This puts the bucket on its side when you hold the handle. Then you get to walk and crawl through areas of the cave that have been left virtually undeveloped. Actually we entered the cave at the opening through which the original tours back in the early 1900's entered. There weren't many crystals in this area because the early explorers took everything they could carry. But we were able to get a bit of the feel for what it must have been like exploring this cave way back when.
The strangest feeling occurs when the candles are blown out and you sit in this all encompasing darkness. There is absolutely no light for you to see even the faintest outline. It gives you a whole new appreciation for the sonar capabilities of bats. Unfortunately our particular tour guide, one of three, was just kind of so-so. We got the impression that he'd been giving this tour for so long that he was just reciting lines from a book. Not much spark or animation. The other two guides seemed to be much more lively. Well, luck of the draw I suppose.
Jewel cave is the second longest cave in the U.S., second only to Mamouth Cave in Kentucky. The day we visited it was just slightly over 111 miles long. Much of the exploration was done by Fred and Judy Conn. Back in the 30's a friend of theirs talked them into visiting the cave. Before then they had primarily been into rock climbing. In fact Judy Conn was the first woman to use modern rock climbing techniques to climb Devil's Tower. But after that they were hooked on Jewel Cave. They ended up exploring more than 57 miles. I happened to overhear one of the seasonal rangers say that the Conns still come to the cave and the park authorities will turn out the lights so they can run around in the dark as they did so many times before.
We spent an afternoon partaking of our second most favorite sport, hiking. The original plan had been to hike out to Harney Peak and back, a mere 6 miles. Well, we screwed up, not just once but twice, turning the 6 miles into more like 10 miles. This felt kind of strange. We're reasonably well seasoned hikers and rarely loose a trail. Yet here we had managed to take wrong turns twice on one hike. Were we loosing our direction finding senses? Fortunately we weren't the only ones having trouble. We ran across three other groups of people having similar difficulties finding the trail. This was definitly a relief for us.
At the top of Harney peak stands a wonderful old fire watch tower built of stone cemented together. Although no longer used for fire watching it still provides opportunities for great vistas of the surrounding hills. But, no matter how we or the other folks there tried we couldn't figure out which of the surrounding mountains was Mt. Rushmore, only 8.2 miles away by trail.
The tower was built back in the depression by the CCC. In fact, much of the facilities at Custer State Park, the Black Hills, and many of the other national and state parks were built by the CCC. Various signs indicated that the CCC hired young men between the ages of 17 and 25, paid them $30 a week of which $25 was sent home to their families, and let them work for about 18 months in some of the most beautiful locations in the country. Just think. The small amount of money it took to employ all those young men resulted in the construction of facilities used by millions of people now and in the future. We think the government actually got their money's worth on that program. Too bad they couldn't do something similar today. But, they'd probably have to provide health care, retirement, life insurance, and other benefits which would immediately make it far too costly.
The next day, to rest our weary feet, we went to see Mt Rushmore. There's something about Mt. Rushmore that always fills me with awe. I'm not sure what it is, patriotism or just the shear magnitude of this piece of work. No matter how it touches an individual, it's well worth braving the huge July crowds to gaze upon it.
They are in the process of improving the facilities to handle the huge summer crowds. Although we weren't particularly excited with their selection of style. The old gift shop, restaurant, visitor center was in a rustic wooden building that fit with the mountainous surroundings. The new buildings are constructed of gray granite cut in perfect blocks with a large use of glass for doors and windows. The building looks more like something that should be on the Mall in Washington DC rather than in the Black Hills. But, I suppose the architects felt the monument deserved more grandious looking buildings.
Brian and I both love old steam locomotives. So when we saw that there was an opportunity to take a 2 hour train ride between Hill City and Keystone, we jumped at it. We sat in the open car, rain gear in hand because of some omonious looking clouds, grinning from ear to ear absolutely relishing each moment. Even having sand sprayed all over didn't phase us. During the 6% grades the engineers throw sand in the boiler to clean the pipes which results in thick black smoke and a shower of sand. This was one two hour ride that felt more like 15 minutes.
For our final foray in the Black Hills we mosied on down to Wind Cave where we took the more regular, tourist type tour. Wind cave is significantly different from Jewel and Lehman caves in that there are few calcite deposites. No stalagmites or stalactites, frost, popcorn, or other crystals. But there are lots and lots of toppled rocks and huge "rooms" as they call the large underground caverns.
By this time we were about caved out, having seen 3 within a 2 week period. Also it was rather rainy and wet in the Black Hills. So we headed to the Badlands to dry out.
The Badlands National Park and National Grasslands, located smack dab in the middle of S. Dakota, is not a park you hear about too often. It's two main features are the grass prairies, as indicated by the name, and the erroding sand cliffs. This is another one of those areas where part of the land was uplifted creating a cliff. Over time the cliff gets erroded into canyons and peaks of multicolored sandstone. The colors seem to change with the shifting light of the day. Stark white with mutted pinks of the midday sun become brilliant reds, oranges, and golds in the evening. We learned that the white color comes from ash thrown up from distant volcanos, sort of like the ash generated by Mt. St. Helens. The reds and oranges are the sediment deposites occurring between volcano erruptions.
We went for a 6 mile hike through the grasslands along the edge of one of the cliffs. Once away from the road and powerlines there were places where we could look around and see nothing but grasslands for miles. A homogeneous carpet of light green gently swaying with the slight breeze. I was reminded of a book I read in elementary school, "Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingles Wilder. I recall her describing traveling in their coverd wagon for miles and miles seeing nothing but the endless grasses. Now this is one of only a few places left where you can get a glimpse of what these early pioneers saw.
At night the stars would come out in a dazzling array. As clear and bright as any planetarium, only this was real. After the 9PM ranger talk they hold a star gazing session. The park service has a couple of large telescopes they cart out just for the occasion. We got to take a closer look at Jupiter, with it's four visible moons. several star clusters, nebula, and other constellations. It's difficult to imagine the vastness of space and the shear numbers of stars and planets that exist. You've got to think that somewhere amongst all those planets some other form of life must exist.
The Badlands were to be the eastern most point of our van travels. As we prepared to head back west to Wyoming we encountered the first bike tourists for this trip. Allen and Adam Reeder were headed east to west on a Maine to Oregon trip. This was Adam's first long tour and Allen's second. They started their joutney in mid May, a rather cold time of year to start, and had another 4 weeks to make it to Oregon. That's a lot of riding to do in a very short time, an average of over 70 miles per day. We swapped a few tales, like all those repeatitive questions you get when on bike tour. Questions like; "Where did you start?, " How far do you ride each day", and "How do you get your bike back home?" It's amazing how the questions are always the same. In fact, getting a novel question is something we actually relish after a while.
On the way to Devil's Tower in Wyoming we made a brief stop at the towns of Lead (pronounced Leed) and Deadwood. Lead is the proud home for the Homestack gold mine company. It is the longest continually operating mine in the world. Found in 1876 and still in operation today. They have both above and below ground mining operations. The above ground pit has about another 3 years of mining left, they hit the below ground tunnels aat that point, at which time they'll start the land reclaimation work. Since the pit was started back in the 1800's and because some of the original backfilling was not done correctly, they will not be required to fill in the hole. They'll just plant trees and so forth to make the pit look a little more natural. How good a job they'll do remains to be seen.
One interesting operation performed at the mine is the removal of the cyanide from the water. Cyanide is used to separate the gold from the ore similar to how mercury was used in the early days. To remove the cyanide, they have large vats containing a bacteria that converts it to carbon dioxide. Another vat with some other bacteria then removes the carbon dioxide. The water is left 99.99% clean, or at least that's what they advertise.
Deadwood was another mining town founded back in 1876. It was named Deadwoood becuase there was so much dead wood in the stream at that time that two mining groups working on each side of the river did not know that the other group existed. The town of Deadwood actually is quite famous. In it's early days it was the favorite hangout for such colorful charcters as Calmity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock. In fact on August 2. 1876 Wild Bill was shot in the back while playing poker in Saloon No. 10, which is now available for sale.
Deadwood is now experiencing a different sort of gold boom, gambling. It's another one of these small mountain towns that permits full Las Vegas style gambling. Fortunately the gambling doesn't appear to have totally overwhelmed the town's character. The casinos were carefully placed in existing historical buildings with all rennovations overseen by a local committee. But, once again we skipped the casinos and headed for the food instead.
Looming over the grasslands and low hills of northeastern Wyoming is the huge black monolith, Devil's Tower. It's enormous black tree trunk form can be seen for miles around. You'll recall that Devil's tower was featured in the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" as the location where the aliens were supposed to land. What's so unusual about it is the fact that it's the only formation of its kind in this area
There is a theory and legend as to how it formed. The theory says that the magma of a volcano core cooled after the volcano stopped erupting. The magma then solidified and shrank. As it shrank,long vertical cracks formed which resulted in the huge five and six sided columns running the full height of the cone. Over the next few million years or so the soft rock surrounding the core erroded away leaving just the core.
The indian legend says that eight children, seven girls and one boy were out playing. The boy suddenly dropped to all fours and started growling. He was transformed into a giant bear and proceeded to chase the girls. The girls climbed onto a tree stump that grew bigger and bigger, keeping them out of the bear's reach. The bear coninued to try to climb up the tree trunk causing the large vertical scrapes. The tree eventually grew so tall that the bear fell off the side. It broke into thousands of pieces, each piece becoming one of the bears we see today. The girls on the trunk were spirited up to the sky to become the seven stars in the big dipper.
Now, which story sounds better? Personally we think the Indian legend is more romantic.
There are two trails that encircle the tower, one 4 miles and the other 2 miles. We walked both. The 4 mile loop is a normal dirt trail and goes a fair distance from the tower at various points. The 2 mile route is paved and horribly crammed with people. Naturally the 4 mile trail was much more enjoyable. As we strolled I couldn' help but wonder where they filmed different scenes from the movie. Several views of the tower and surrounding hills looked awfully familliar.
Devil's Tower happens to be the country's first National Monument created through Presidential proclimation by Roosevelt in the 1903. This means that our new home state, Wyoming, is also the proud home of the first national monument and park, Yellowstone having been created way back in 1872. Not a bad new home, is it?
Cody Wyoming and Yellowstone, July 5 to July 16
As we continued west we traveled through the region of the country where the most decisive encounters between white man and Indian occurred leading to the infamous battle of Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee massacre. Prior to the 1860's the white pioneers were heading west to Oregon and California along the Oregon trail which traveled through southern Wyoming. The Indians had been given a treaty from the U.S. government which essentially prohibited white man from traveling through the Black Hills and northern Wyoming.
All was well until gold was discovered in Montana. Then white man, in the usual frenzy accompanied by all gold discoveries, decided to find a short cut right through the Indian lands. Some dude by tha name of Boseman established a trail that went by Buffalo and Sheridan Wyoming. Well, the Sioux weren't at all happy about this. After all they'd already been forced west by the white man from their original homes east of the Mississippi and this was just about the last place they could go. So they started to "harass" the wagon trains. By harassing, they mean attacking, burning, stealing horses, killing, etc.
To protect the wagons, the Cavalry set up three forts in 1866, C. F. Smith, Phil Kearny, and Reno. These forts were sights of continual conflict until 1868 when they became obsolete due to the arrival of the train. During this time Ft. Phil Kearny was the scene of one of the most famous Indian triumphs, second only to Little Bighorn. On Dec. 21, 1866, an ex-civil war soldier (actually most of the cavalry and the pioneers were ex-Civil war soldiers seeking fame and fortune) named Fetterman took a squad of troops out to the area where they were collecting wood for the fort. They were baited and trapped by the Sioux into a battle in which all 87 of U.S. soldiers were killed. Evidently the Sioux used guerilla warfare techniques as opposed to Fetterman's formation style fighting which had been successful during the war. In response to this defeat the Cavalry devised new defense methods and the very next year scored a major victory in the Wagon Box Fight of August 2, 1867.
As I mentioned, the forts were abondoned and subsequently burned by the Sioux in 1868 when the train came through. At about the same time Custer was exploring the Black Hills, he wasn't supposed to be there according to the treaty, and discovered gold which started a new rush of white man to the Black Hills region. During this time the U.S. government was renegotiating the treaty with the Sioux that would relocate them further northwest. Cief Sitting Bull, however, was a little fed up by this time and got together a band of rebels to fight the white man. This lead to their great success at Little Bighorn. He then took his band of rebels to the Badlands area where of the hill?
ome. So we
Grand Teton National Park to Kemmerer, July 17 - July 23
The Grand Tetons National Park is separated from Yellowstone by the John D. Rockefeller National Senic Parkway. Evidently back in the 1920's the Teton mountains and lakes had been set aside as a national monument, but the Jackson Hole valley was still in private hands. Some of the locals, concerned that a major chunk of wild lands needed to support the elk population would end up being developed, convinced Rockefeller to buy the lands and give it to the public, done in 1943. Hence the road being named in his honor. In 1949 it was officially joined with the national monument, and finally in 1950 the whole thing was declared a park. The difference between a National Park and Monument is that Parks are created through an act of congress, monuments can be created through presidential proclimation.
The mountain ridge making yp the Tetons was created by the land on the east pushing against the land on the west, which forced the west land up and the east land down about 4 times as much. The uplifted mountains were then carved by snow, rain, wind, and the ice of the hugh continental glaciers. Since the uplifting is relatively new, only a few million years old a mere moment in geologic time, these mountains have spectacular shear, rocky peaks. The effects of errosion have yet to round their tops.
The glaciers cut huge U shaped canyons extending many miles into the uplifted shelf and left knife edge peaks behind. Over time, rivers running down each canyon have cut additional V shaped canyons at the bottom of each U. Continued uplifting has left the original glacier valleys hanging slightly above the Jackson Hole. All these uplifting and carving effects have left some spectacular canyons and high mountain lakes that afford excellent hiking and backpacking opportunities. The name, Tetons, comes from the French, "Les Trois Tetons", the three breasts referring to three of the predominant peaks. Looking at the peaks I think the French either had overly vivid imaginations or hadn't seen womenfolk a long time.
We took two full days to complete the loop road, stop at all turnouts, and visit the interpretive trails. The historical sights are most interesting. One building boasts about a hundred photos from the late 1800's and early 1900's showing the towns of Kelly and Jackson, the dude ranches and dudes, methods of transportation ranging from dog sleds, skis, horse drawn wagons, and autos, and, of course, the wildlife and scenery. We always enjoy these old photos. On the one hand the life they portray seems so alien and difficult. Yet just imagine how photos taken today will seem some 50 to 100 years from now. Just as alien and wierd.
Another historical site was a ranch run by Pierce Cunningham. He came to the area in 1898. Hard winters and the inability for the glacial deposits in Jackson Hole to hold water for crops finally caused him to sell out in 1928. Eventually most farmers and ranchers sold out or started running dude ranches. One person was quoted as saying that "dudes winter much better than cows". What seems quite bizare to us is that these folks were considered "pioneers" yet they left only a short 4 years before my father was born (sorry about that dad). So this area was actually quite undeveloped even as little as 60 years ago. We managed to complete two good hikes before leaving, a 14 mile day hike and a 2 night pack-in. For the day hike we took a boat across Lake Jenny and hiked up Cascade Canyon to Lake Solitude. It turns out this particular trail is the most popular in the park. So although the scenery was beautiful, the crowds made us feel like we were somewhere in the California mountains. In California the crowds on the trails are so heavy they now require even day hikers to get permits just so they can control the number of people on the trails. So Lake Solitude in the middle of July is a bit of an misnomer.
One of the trickiest things to do when on a popular trail, especially for us lady folk, is going to the bathroom. It was particularly difficult this day becaus it was raining. First I had to tromp off the trail through cold, sopping wet bushes adding more mud and water to my already soaked pants, get out of my rain poncho, day pack, fanny pack, pants and underwear, finish my business, and get everything back on before the next person comes down the trail, about 60 seconds max. Almost didn't make it.
For our 2 night trip we chose the much less popular Granite Canyon. We hiked in 6 miles, pitched the tent for 2 nights, and took a loop day hike before packing out the next day. Our campsite was glorious. Located on a steep embankment overlooking the river we had spectacular views of Jackson Hole and the canyon through we had just hiked. At night we'd pull up a few chairs (rocks) at the edge of the cliff and watch the clouds turn from puffy white to cotten candy pink. The regular 5:30 PM showers left water drops on each leaf looking like pear shaped diamonds reflecting in the setting sun. The air had a stillness that made you want to whisper to avoid disturbing deer and elk. The chilly mountain air finally forced us to seek the warmth of our down bags and tent. Mornings appeared with the bright blue sky and yellow sun peaking out over the mountains opposite the river. Mists blanketed the Jackson Hole valley and white puffy clouds in the west gave an indication of the afternoon rains to come.
The Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountains are bear country which adds a bit of excitment, suspense, and complication to a back packing trip. Friendly bear encounters, like the two we had in Yellowstone, require that you take certain precautions. Mainly this entails hanging almost everything you pack in, including food, pots, pans, stoves, water bottles, toothpaste, suntan lotion, lip gloss, and anything that has any hint of order. They should be hung 10 ft off the ground, 4 ft from the trunk of the tree, 3 ft down from a branch. Counterbalancing, one bag on each end of the rope, is also recommended. You also should change your clothes just before bed, cook 100 yds away from your tent and wear no deoderant, perfume, or other smelly stuff. Finally you need to make noise on the trail, hand clapping, talking, yelling, or rattling rocks in a can. Sorry, those cute bear bells you buy in the local tourist shops don't work. Add to this the fact that you have to filter, treat, or boil your water to avoid such problems as Ghiardia you'll find that back packing entails a lot more steps than it used to. Just imagine what the mountain men and native Peoples of old would think of all this.
Don't get me wrong, though. Despite these added quirks of back packing in the 90's Mother Nature is quick to reward those who dare to make the effort. Especially this time of year, mid July, when all the mountain meadows and hillsides are splattered with colors from the spring flowers. There were bright yellows buttercups and dandilions, pinks mountain Primrose, Blue bells, and whites, blues, lavenders, pinks, and yellows from dozens of other flowers I don't know the names of. of color. I was reminded of an impressionist style painting where what appear to be just random colored dots up close form scenes from Victorian life at a distance. If I get far enough away will Mother Nature reveal a special scene in the colors of the hill?
After completing our 3 day hike it was time to head south for the final week of our van trip. We swung by the Fossil Butte National monument to look at and read about the fossilized fishes found in the solidified silt of what was Fossil Lake and attempted to spend the night in the town of Kemmerer. Despite being the proud hometown of the J.C. Penny department store chain, founded in 1906, Kemmerer seemed to be the most unwelcoming town we've encountered so far. The RV parks had no bathroom facilities and, consequently, would not take tents or any vehicle without a toilet. Signs bordered the streets saying things like "Parking off road only", "No parking from 3 AM to 6 AM", "No overnight camping", No This and No That. This was the only town we'd seen where the cops actually seemed to look at us with suspicious eyes. We finally gave up on finding a place to park in town and got permission to park at the truckers' Port of Entry instead.
Unfortunatly the problems didn't quite end there. Just as we settled down to sleep, at about 11 PM, Brian started hearing a soft *skritch, skritch, squeek* coming from one of the boxes. A mouse, Durned if Casper hadn't invited a mouse in for a ride. Some searching revealed a teeny, tiny mouse trapped in one of our food boxes.
Having introduced that mouse to a new home, we tried to settle down to sleep. Once again the *skritch, skritch* started. This time, though, the noise moved around. First the sound of scratching on metal at the rear of the van, then a soft *squeek squeek* near my head, and then more *skritching thunking* at our feet. We sat up, turned on the flashlight, and tried to figure out how to locate and release this one. As we sat, a wedge faced nuzzle and beady black eye popped out of one of the holes in the van's support beam. What guts. It was as if it was daring us to come find it. Now, personally I think mice are cute. It's just that having sharp little claws scramble across my face in the middle of the night would be a little disconcerting. So we needed to do something.
Knowing there was no way we could track it down in the in the dark, we opted to drive another 37 miles to a mosquito infested, but free, campground and pitch the tent for the night. It was 1:30 AM by the time we got resettled. The next day, back in the Kemmerer town park, we unpacked the van and every single box. Brian finally located our second visitor in one of his clothes boxes, the second to last box we unpacked. Oh well, every cloud has a silver lining. We got a little smarter about our food storage and got the van reorganized.
Kemmerer, Wyo to Denver - July 23 - August 3
After our bad experience in Kemmerer we decided to treat ourselves to a private campground and showers, our first since before our last pack-in. After 6 days of sweat, sunscreen, and bug spray my whole body feels likes it's covered with a thick layer of sticky goo. My bangs mat onto my face and my shoulder length hair hangs in greezy strands. I stink. Standing in the shower I can just feel layer upon layer of ooze running off my arms, legs, back, stomach into the drain below replaced by the wonderful clean warm water. It felt great.
We stopped in the Rawlins town park to have a quick breakfast of cereal and toast. As we ate a man of about 5 ft 8 inches in blue overalls, baseball cap, big brown leather work boots, and glasses so thick you could hardly see his eyes took a few minutes from his daily walk with his Malamute dog, Scotty, to talk.
He says, "Having breakfast, hey?"
"I used to do that (cook out on picnics). Too old now. I'm 89 years old. This town's full of us old folks."
We found out that Charles Herring, born in the town of Riverside, Wyo. in 1906, was a retired auto mechanic and service department manager for Chevrolet. He'd lived in Rawlins since 1925 and was even responsible for planting most of the trees that were providing the shade for our breakfast picnic. After telling him we'd just moved from San Diego to Casper he said,
"Lots of folks moving up there and to Cheyenne too. People from out of state. Some folks are moving here but not so fast. We don't notice them as much"
We recalled seeing an older road bed following along I-80 last night and asked him about it.
Brian, "Was that the old road west running by the highway"
Charles, "You'll see a sign about it as you head south"
"When were the last wagon trains, around 1910?"
"They followed the old Overland trail. You'll see the sign about it just out of town. When the river was too high they'd have to wait around a while to cross."
"What was the first actual road."
"It followed the old railroad bed. (We) went up to Jackson back in 1920. Took all day to get to Rock Springs (105 miles away)"
Caryl, "Rough dirt road?"
"Lots of rail road spikes and such. Bought new tires for the trip"
I could just picture a family stuffed into an old 1920 Model T Ford, luggage tied to the roof, back, running boards, heading across a rough, potholed dirt road towards Jackson. Taking the adventure of a lifetime. Charles bade us a pleasent journey and headed back home with Scotty.
After talking with him I realized how different bike touring is from van touring. On a bike you are far more exposed and have much more opportunities to have encounters like this. People will actually seek you out and start conversations. In the van, we're far more isolated and common. We're beginning to get anxious to be off on the bikes at last.
Before leaving Rawlins we took the 1 hour tour of the old Wyoming state prison. Our tour guide, Allen, had spent quite a bit of time reading about the people who were either *residents* or employees. He told us stories about how 20 men escaped one time by simply pushing down the old wood barracade only to later be hunted down, killed or captured. The 12 ft concrete wall was constructed after that. Or the man who upon release, proceeded to attack and murder an elderly woman who had been especially kind to the inmates. After being returned to jail, the inmates hung him. Or the four guys in death row who spent night after night digging a tunnel from just under the old hanging room towards the outer wall. They blew themselves right out of the hole when they encountered a natural gas line. Amazingly none were killed. Stories like that sounded somewhat amusing now that the events happened many years ago. But, we just couldn't help feeling a little creepy when we looked at the pale gray walls, tiny cells, wooden beds.
The "Old Pen" as the locals now called it, opened back in 1896 and continued to operate until 1981. Even up until just 1978 the cells in the oldest wing didn't have hot running water. Each morning one prisoner brought a bucket of hot water to each cell and that was all you had for the day. It was quite a revelation to see how the prison was basically it's own separate world. Once inside your life revolved around only a 67 acre plot of land. You couldn't even see the outside world. Cells were just tiny 6X8X8 cubicles where 2 people bunked. The tour was on one hand quite fascinating but on the othr quite sobering. You could just think 'there but for the grace of God and some good parenting go I'.
For our final week with Casper we traveled down to Rocky Mountain Nat'l Park just northwest of Denver. Again we took a one day hike and a two night pack-in. Planning our pack-in trip was actually rather difficult. In Yellowstone and Tetons you were allowed to get a back country permit only 1 or 2 days in advance. Which meant that if you got up early you could usually get either your first or second choice site. At Rocky Mtn you have up to a year in advance to get a permit. So most sites were taken and we just had to take whatever was available.
One thing we were absolutely shocked and appalled to discover was that Rocky Mtn Nat'l Park and Roosevelt Nat'l Forest both now charge for their back country permits. $10 in the park and $5 in the forest. Is nothing sacred anymore? Isn't there any place that one can be assured of free back packing? Information from the campground hosts indicate that this is another effect of that "spending cut" from last year.
The pack-in hike that we finally ended up with took us up to the north side of the park to a small lake, former resevoir, called Lawn Lake. Back in July of 1982 the damn at Lawn Lake burst causing major flooding and devestation all the way down past Estes Park and beyond. Even today the impact of the torrent of water is quite evident. A huge gully was cut all along the river, bolders ranging from toaster to Volkswagon size are strewn all along the river's path and well into the valley, and dead trees are piled up along the edges where they were tossed like toothpicks. Up at Lawn Lake we could actually see the remains of the damn. Is was an earthen damn about 15 ft high. Right in the middle is a huge gash large enough to drive a bus through. Just imagine a bus sized wall of water tearing down the small canyon destroying everything in its path.
Our emotions were quite mixed at this point. This would likely be our last back packing trip for many years to come. So we were feeling both sad and yet full of anticipation. What lies ahead for us, who will we meet, what edventures will we encounter? Only time will tell.
At long last it was time to return to Denver, say goodbye to Casper, and get our bottoms reacquainted with our bicycle seats.
Appendix A - Budget
For those of you who may consider traveling for a living in the future, I am providing our total expenses from 6/19 to 7/30. This includes all food, entertainment like the train and boat rides, camping, showers, etc. It does not include anything that we expect to last more than one year. A per week cost for these items would be negligible and we plan to add that in at the end of the year only.
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.